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Cry, the murderous country



One of the hazards of pointing out injustice is the characterisation of such action as emotion-ridden. In this framing, physical and psychological pain are unreliable markers of truth. A grief that lingers is taken as manipulative. Anger is received as disproportionate and uncivil.

Hamid KhazaeiSuch dismissals expose dynamics of power. Human responses to loss and damage are quite straightforward. Whose responses are taken seriously, less so. No one relishes guilt, discomfort or responsibility for hurting others — at least no one decent and reasonable. We prefer to think we are good people, with good intentions.

But countries are made of people, and the sooner we accept the murderous character of this country, the sooner we can overhaul it. The time for insisting 'this is not who we are' will not get us there. It was never who we are. Indifference to human life is what made Australia, and it still permeates its approach to crises.

In a 2009 piece for The Monthly, resurfacing after the recent Mayo by-election, Tony Roberts detailed the ways in which massacres of Aboriginal populations were sanctioned by a series of South Australian governments, in order to expedite pastoral settlement in the Northern Territory. There can be no doubt about intent: in four years, 15 tribes or language groups of some 4000 people lost their land to 14 leaseholders.

Indigenous people are still dying over much less. Ms Dhu died in custody in 2014 from septicaemia-related complications, after being detained for unpaid fines. David Dungay died in custody in 2015 from cardiac arrest brought about by hypoxia, after being restrained for refusing to stop eating biscuits. Both clearly expressed distress before dying — and were met with indifference until it was too late.

As with many things, Indigenous experience provides the lens with which to see things clearly in Australia. First Nations people know the fatal measure of our indifference.

It manifests in many areas. In 2014 Hamid Khazaei (pictured) died from infection, 13 days after presenting at the Manus Island clinic with a lesion on his leg and flu-like symptoms. The coroner's report is unequivocal: the Australian government was solely responsible for the delays and failures that led to Khazaei's death, following septic shock, cardiac arrest and brain damage.


"It is worth sitting with what it means to deliberately erode people's hold on life. It might not be murder. But it can be described as murderous. The effect is the same."


Such deaths lie at the extreme end of our indifference. Without them we can still understand how a detachment from the qualities that make a life leads us — and our elected governments — to impose conditions hostile to it.

Around 7000 asylum seekers on bridging visas, for instance, have lost status resolution support services (SRSS), which includes income assistance of $35 a day. Advocates are anticipating a mental health crisis in this group; wait times for psychiatric appointments at the Cabrini refugee hub have increased from weeks to months as demand increases.

Given the suicides among the 12 deaths in immigration detention on Manus Island and Nauru, it is worth sitting with what it means to deliberately erode people's hold on life. It might not be murder. But it can be described as murderous. The effect is the same.

In more than a dozen cases, a federal court order had to be sought for the transfer of a child to Australia for medical intervention. The latest order involves a girl on Nauru who had self-harmed and was diagnosed with severe major depressive disorder and resignation syndrome (in which a child refuses to eat and drink).

No one needs to be cruel for this girl to be at risk of death. All it takes is indifference to her life, and the circumstances in which she lives. That much we can know from previous deaths.

It lends new light to other policies and rhetoric that affect vulnerable lives. The limit does not seem to be that no one should die. If it is the limit, then what is revealed in the breach? Are we willing to hold that gaze? For how long?



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Ms Dhu, David Dungay, Hamid Khazaei, asylum seekers, Aboriginal Australians



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Existing comments

Fatima, if you really believe : "Indifference to human life is what made Australia", then I pity your experience of Australian life and lament you inability to see the enormous good shown every day by the vast majority of Australians. I only know great Australians. People of candor. Colorful people, accepting people, gracious, generous, fun-loving people. Courageous, loving, enduring people. Beautiful people young and old. Indigenous issues are endemic and successive governments have "owned" valid efforts to bring our indigenous brothers and sisters into a better way of life. $50 Billion a year is the current spend but this underestimates all of the NP money and expertise that funnels into these communities. We are not walking away from these issues as a nation. We are engaged, we hope for a better outcome for all indigenous people. The countries dealings with economic refugees is a different issue and to bend the two into a single narrative is disrespectful to our first nations brothers and sisters. The "economic migrants" boarded flights and flew over ten countries ( many muslim ) to arrive in Indonesia. They then boarded boats, discarded all evidence of who they were ( including disposing of passports ) and set sail for the Australia. These ARE economic migrants and I do not have any qualms about keeping them out of the country. They should apply like everyone else and have their merit assessed rather than arrive on our doorstep, put our naval service people at risk and demand they be granted "asylum". If they are unhappy with Manus, they are free to return to their country of origin. Oh, but of course they don't want that because they set out on their journey in search of a better economic life.

Patrick | 02 August 2018  

Strong and true words Fatima. Not that those in power will notice, feel, or acknowledge it. The country now known as Australia was founded on murder, and continues to be characterised by it. Heartsick.

bev henwood | 02 August 2018  

Australia has a cruel past in many ways including the murders of many Aboriginal people, and a cruel present in many ways with the cruelty shown to desperate innocent refugees, etc. And now we have a cruel drought affecting vast areas of our land. Unless Australians start taking climate change more seriously, this cruel drought will be a forerunner of even more cruel droughts. Thankfully many Aussies, including some farmers and some politicians are now taking climate change seriously. Who wants a country that is several degrees hotter and even drier than it currently is? Of course we all need to play our part! And consider carefully who you vote for at the next election. Future generations depend on what political decisions are being made now! Opening up new coal mines is a recipe for disaster and would hasten the death of the Great Barrier Reef!

Grant Allen | 02 August 2018  

Fatima, thank you for naming it as it is. As the direct descendant of one who murdered two aboriginal youths very early in the colony of NSW, and as one who has read something of the complexities of the politics of the times as the trial of my ancestor and his associates in crime unfolded, I agree that our country is based in murder . . . and whole-scale theft. I have read recently Stephen Gapps' "The Sydney Wars" which sets out clearly the way in which the British colonisers came knowing there would be war with the original inhabitants, and prepared for that war. The Aboriginal defendants proved formidable opponents, their defence collapsing only after so many of them died of small pox. Some claim that the smallpox was deliberately inflicted on the Sydney people by the colonisers who arrived in the First Fleet with bottles of smallpox. It was war, guerilla war, and the invaders won. That is how "Australian History" began.

Janet | 02 August 2018  

The dealing of refugees in Australia will leave a stain on our history forever. I found this article to be so enlightening. What is that people like Dutton find so gratifying in punishing refugees? They are now in their fifth year of incarceration. They seem to get punished for not having drowned. Australia is a country that my parents chose to migrate to back in 1956. I am beginning to believe they made a mistake. Yet, I am now an Australian but not as proud as I should be.

gerard oosterman | 02 August 2018  

Well said, Fatima. The Australian nation was built on the wholesale murder of Indigenous Australians defending their lands against our forefathers, the early squatters and settlers. The callousness with which both sides of today's Federal Parliament maintain what they see as the necessity of long-term detention of asylum seekers, some already registered as refugees, continues the same warlike approach toward "others" who seek to live with us in this land.

Ian Fraser | 02 August 2018  

Thank you

ann laidlaw | 02 August 2018  

Legitimate criticism of the failures of any society is justified. But Critical Theory was a neo-Marxist creation which sought the constant and endless criticism of every element of Western society. This was not intended to be legitimate criticism. The aim was to induce people to believe the worst about themselves, their society, and their culture, while at the same time giving their proponents the emotional power of “righteous” anger. The problem for these Leftists is that the corpses of untold millions attest to the fact that their attempts to create Heaven here on earth have proved to be a thousand times worse than anything they criticize.

Ross Howard | 02 August 2018  

Labeling Australia with the "murderous" tag might attract readers' attention as it did mine, Fatima; but I question the effectiveness of such round condemnation in any sustainable reconciliation process.

John | 02 August 2018  

Thank you Fatima. I agree that indifference and an inability to know what to do by those who are concerned, is allowing our country to drift into being nothing like we all want ---that is a country of fair go and one which cares for the most vulnerable and takes seriously our obligations as a caring nation. Underpinning the present policies with respect to our First Peoples and Asylum Seekers is a view that one size fits all. That anyone who wishes to be part of Australia must speak and look like US and accept our western christian based culture. This ignores the reality of our multicultural population and the incredible wealth we have gained from other cultures though our immigration. It also means we are turning our back on the rich Indigenous culture of this land and its people. Finally our approach to maintaining these beliefs is to use the policy of "the end justifies the means". This enables us to turn our back on those in need and to treat innocent people as criminals.

Bill Armstrong AO | 03 August 2018  

Along with other good people, my Irish Ancestors arrived in Australia in the 1850's. They were fleeing from starvation in their own land. They worked hard to establish communities which showed respect to each other and to the indigenous people around them. They built Churches , Schools , Hospitals in Country towns and they lived happily in communities based on the "fair-go" principle which is imbued in our culture and is such an attraction to people who wish to come here to live. During the depression years Australian people survived by looking after each other and there are many country towns where stories of great ""mateship " and real caring friendship are still told. If you study the History of Australia with an open mind I think you will find your descriptions of Australians as being " Indifferent to human life " and having a "murderous character " to be quite unfair

Margaret MacNamara | 03 August 2018  

Yes, there were widespread massacres of Aborigines by white settlers into the early decades of the 20th Century. But the same was so with all the colonizing Western nations from the early 16th till the early 20th Century. Tens of millions of indigenous peoples were massacred and enslaved by firstly the Spanish and Portuguese, then the Dutch, English, French, Germans, Italians, Belgians and finally the Americans. And let’s not forget the appalling atrocities that the PRC has been inflicted on the Tibetans since 1950 when it colonized Tibet, nor the Indonesian massacres of East Timorese they colonized from 1975-99, nor the ongoing sporadic Indonesian massacres of Papuans in West Papua since 1963.

Dennis | 03 August 2018  

I agree it is indifference; a soft approach to cruelty. Indifference breeds complicity; an ailment of many politicians when it comes to the lives of those on Nauru and Manus and the thousands of people living in our communities without the safety net of any income. Slowly their lives are being destroyed. Indifference allows these policies and practices to continue without intervention. Meanwhile those who do give a damn are buckling under the stress of trying to change the policies, fight for some justice and finding ways to keep people from falling over the cliff. As indifference permeates the hallowed hallways of Parliament on these matters and many more, Australia continues to slip into a state of undignified ambivilance; an environment that breeds corruption.

Anne | 03 August 2018  

Yes, you are right many Australians don't care. A truly shameful aspect of post modern Australia

Jillian Curr | 03 August 2018  

Fatima you have identified a very real problem behind the British Invasion of this country. That many conservative Australians want to deny. You are correct that the genocide of the original people on this continent was a very real strategy that many of the country's first leaders pursued. However, it is also important to point out that many of the early settlers did not support this treatment of Australia's indigenous people. Key church leaders, politicians, human rights activists, socialists etc. gave their solidarity to those being targeted - even when it was at great risk to themselves. I agree that the cruel and callous treatment of asylum seekers is also another reason why Australia is betting a very bad name overseas. To this, I would add the policy of dogged subservience to the US Military Industrial Complex is another reason. Since WW2, our leaders have involved us in many US initiated wars and the overthrow of many democratic governments to suit the designs of the large US corporations. Australia will only ever become a "righteous" nation that works for international peace, social justice, human rights, equality for all and reversing climate change and the over pollution of the planet when the people of goodwill amongst us demand that Australia becomes an independent and non aligned republic that pursues these aims. It is a gigantic task, but it has to be undertaken in this nation and most others as well.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 03 August 2018  

Add this, governments who close down all shelters for women and kids fleeing violence might not be murderers but with the massive epidemic of murders of women by their partners and recent mass murders of kids by parents or a grand parent then the intent could be indifference to human life or just plain murderous. I note Patrick claims that we are not murderous because of $50 billion supposedly to indigenous people, our countries ''worth'' and budget is over $1.5 trillion, our super fund is more than that, the land value is incalculable so $50 billion for the owners of this country is a patronising bauble and the deaths are murderous by intent, not indifference.

Marilyn | 04 August 2018  

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